Dante’s Divine Comedy

Next on my reading list of the Italian Renaissance is the Divine Comedy (or Commedia) of Dante Alighieri, written some time between 1308 and 1321 after his exile from his beloved Florence with the expulsion of the White Guelphs. It can in some ways be seen as Dante’s way of dealing with this blow in the same way as Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy to deal with his impending execution.

Before saying a few words about each of the three books of the Commedia, I want to point out a couple of things about the whole which I found quite surprising.

The work is an allegory of the getting of wisdom and follows Dante as he voyages through Hell and Purgatory, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, and then through Heaven in the company of Beatrice, his lifelong object of obsession. That’s the basic story. Most educated people know at least this much and we can easily understand it as allegory without any problems. However, in Dante’s day, it was shocking and quite controversial. Why?

In late medieval literary theory there’s two types of allegory: that of the poets and that of the theologians. Allegory of both types is an extended metaphor, making extensive use of personification, in order to illuminate an interior moral/philosophical struggle. The key difference between them is that the allegory of the poets is at pains to point out that it is dealing with wholly fictive events. This is the allegory of hares and tortoises (yes, I know, keep your shirt on), etc. The theologians’ allegory is made manifest purely in real, historical (by which I mean biblical) events. What caused all the fuss with Dante is that he presents his imaginary journey as real and historical, not fictional. The Virgil who accompanies him is not the personification of Reason or untutored Morality but the real ghost of the real Roman poet who wrote the all too real Aeneid.

To me, this innovative genre-bending is what lifts the Commedia out of the morass of standard medieval Everyman tales (man, I’ve sure read a few) and elevates it to the heights of the highest literature.

This is but one aspect of the Commedia which I could go on about to explain its greatness. There’s the gradually collapsing distinction between Dante the poet and Dante the traveller and fine-grained structural unity explaining the philosophical debate running through the work. But this is not an essay. Be warned, though. Never buy me a beer and ask me my opinion of the work. You’ll have a hard time shutting me up.

Inferno

The key thing to note about people in Hell is that the reason they’re there is never their fault. Other people made them do it. Circumstances dictated they do whatever they did. The refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions is a very interesting aspect of the philosophical problem of evil.

The aptness of the punishments is usually what excites people reading the Inferno. Yeah, they’re cool but I’m a little over them. For me, they show more than just the moral imperative Dante wants to communicate. These and the way he incorporates people and creatures from both classical history and mythology point clearly to the start of the Renaissance love of the literary past for its own sake.

Purgatorio

This book differs from the Inferno in that the punishments are less physical and more philosophical. It marks the start of the movement away from the physical world in a more spiritual realm. The punishments, a mixture of the self-imposed and mandated from on high, are no less apt for that. It means only that they are less showy and spectacular.

Paradiso

This is the really interesting book of the three. In Paradise, we’ve left the material world behind. Dante (the poet and the traveller) must find a way to describe a world composed of light. In doing this, Dante actually provides a really useful insight into the study of optics as it was understood at the time.

During this book, Dante the traveller approaches the understanding of Dante the poet. I’m beginning to understand why scholars say the way to understand the Commedia is to finish reading it then immediately start again. I’m not going to do that I can see the gulf between the two Dante’s narrowing during the whole experience. I’d be dead keen on seeing how his (my) new understanding of the universe affects how he describes Hell. But there’s plenty here which puzzles me. For instance, I can’t make out the principle which differentiates souls consigned to Purgatory from those rewarded with heaven.

Paradiso is also the hardest of the three books to understand. Dante (the poet) struggles to explain the inexpressible. Rather than describing what Dante (the traveller) sees and experiences in this non-material world, he can only describe the impression it leaves on him. The reader then needs to get beyond this in order to deduce what Dante senses. I feel like I’ve been listening to a long joke and haven’t understood the punch line.

I can see how this work has become a lifetime study for some people.